College of Pharmacy Faculty Pioneer Innovative Critical Care Research Collaborative

Five faculty in the College of Pharmacy had a bold vision — to promote education and conduct research that would lead to improved outcomes for critically ill patients.

In 2017, the group, composed of Drs. Christopher Bland, Trisha Branan, Anthony Hawkins, Andrea Sikora, and Susan Smith, came together to form the Critical Care Collaborative (UGAC3). Their mission: foster critical care research and education across the state of Georgia and beyond.

This collaboration is relatively unique — this is the first pharmacy faculty team dedicated to advancing critical care education and scholarship in the Southeast. It creates meaningful ways to contribute to the three primary areas of academia (teaching, service, scholarship) within critical care at a local, state, national, and international level.

“We collaborate to stimulate professional development, scholarship and teaching,” said Dr. Susan Smith, Clinical Associate Professor and Chair of UGAC3. “We strive to promote innovative and progressive critical care education in the pharmacy curriculum for our students, while conducting clinical research that will improve the outcomes of critically ill patients.”

The need of a program like this is evident in the relatively low reported scholarly productivity of academic pharmacists, despite displaying a high rate of overall involvement in the health and welfare of patients. Between teaching requirements, service, and patient care, available time to dedicate to study and research is extremely limited.

“We can complete higher quality research and more of it by working together and combining information and expertise than we would be able to achieve individually,” added Smith. “The benefit of having a collaboration is evident in the increased productivity each of our members have experienced.”

Within the first years of the collaboration, UGAC3 has seen a high rate of success. From 2017 to June 2021, the collaboration, with students and residents, has pushed through 67 abstracts, 15 publications and 10 peer reviewed publications, and has received 12 mentored student/resident research awards, eight grant applications, five grant awards, five research awards.

“This program is unique, not only because it is truly unlike any other program that currently exists, but because the combination of background, knowledge, and skills among the UGAC3 members results in amazing innovations and outcomes,” said Dr. Michael Bartlett, Associate Dean for Science Education, Research and Technology. “The individual scholars bring a diverse skill set to the UGAC3 collaborative.”

The five members of UGAC3 work across the state of Georgia in Albany, Athens, Augusta, and Savannah.

Christopher M. Bland, PharmD, FCCP, FIDSA, BCPS graduated from the University of South Carolina College of Pharmacy in 2000. Currently, he is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist at St. Joseph’s/Candler Health System in Savannah, GA. He joined UGA as a Clinical Assistant Professor in 2011 and was later promoted to Associate Professor in 2016. This year, he was promoted to Clinical Professor. Bland was named the UGA CoP Teacher of the Year in 2018.

Dr. Bland focuses on research in: critical care, infectious diseases, and antimicrobial stewardship with a focus on management of penicillin allergies.

“One thing we have noticed from being engaged in UGAC3, it has made us productive in other areas of scholarship. Those skills obtained through collaboration translate well to other projects and teams,” said Dr. Bland. 

Trisha N. Branan, PharmD, BCCCP is a Clinical Specialist for the Medical & Surgical ICU at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center in Athens, GA. She graduated from the College in 2006. She joined the CoP faculty and staff in 2014 as a Clinical Assistant Professor and was promoted to Clinical Associate Professor in 2018. Since November 2020, she has been serving as the Assistant Department Head for Professional Education. In 2020, Branan was named as the UGA CoP Teacher of the Year.

Dr. Branan focuses on research in: complications of sepsis in critically ill patients; infectious disease issues in critically ill patients; scholarship.

Anthony Hawkins, PharmD, FCCM, BCCCP is a Critical Care Specialist in the medical ICU at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, GA, where he also serves as the PGY-1 Residency coordinator for the hospital. He became a Clinical Assistant Professor for UGA in 2014 after graduating from the College in 2012 and was promoted to Clinical Associate Professor in 2020. He was named as the UGA CoP Teacher of the Year in 2019. Dr. Hawkins is also an adjunct faculty member with the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.

Dr. Hawkins focuses on research in: strategies for assessment and optimization of intravascular volume; precision-based fluid resuscitation; and sedation strategies during targeted temperature management after cardiac arrest, metacognition and clinical reasoning.

Andrea Sikora, PharmD, MSCR, FCCM, BCCCP is a Clinical Specialist in the Cardiac ICU at Augusta University Medical Center in Augusta, GA. After graduating from the College in 2013, she came back in 2017 to work as a Clinical Assistant Professor. This past year, she was promoted to Clinical Associate Professor. Recently, she completed the Georgia Clinical and Translational Science Alliance (CTSA) KL2 Scholar Program and received her Master of Science in Clinical Research from Emory University.

Dr. Sikora focuses on research in: critical care pharmacy practice; hemodynamic and vascular alterations during critical illness.

“Creative synergy has been really special within this group: all of us combining ideas, discussing things, and coming up with new strategies. More so, the mentorship and friendships have made the last four years of my career extremely fulfilling,” said Dr. Sikora.

Susan E. Smith, PharmD, BCPS, BCCCP works alongside Dr. Branan at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center as a Clinical Specialist in the Medical & Surgical ICU. She graduated from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Pharmacy in 2015. She joined the College in 2017 to work as a Clinical Assistant Professor. This past year, she was promoted to Clinical Associate Professor and was named as the UGA CoP Teacher of the Year.

Dr. Smith focuses on research in: vasopressors and hemodynamic monitoring in critically ill patients; critical care pharmacy practice models; and scholarship of teaching and learning related to critical care.

“The inter-group mentorship has been extremely influential on my early career. I was a new faculty member when the group started and the more experienced members of the group were natural mentors for me. Even with members at the same academic rank, we have a form of peer mentoring; we always have others to turn to for advice. Within the past 4 years, every member has been immensely successful, and I can’t help but think that this collaboration has played a role!”

Together, these five consistently communicate to collaborate and discuss topics related to critical care while simultaneously fostering the next generations of pharmacists. The members of this collaborative serve as mentors to students and residents by: supporting and helping them get involved in research projects or initiate their own; encouraging them to become involved in professional organizations; assisting them to obtain residency training; and ultimately help find jobs. Each trainee that works alongside the group members usually has a primary mentor based on location or area of focus but the entire group serves as a resource for each student.

“UGAC3 served as influential mentors to me and worked tirelessly to ensure all doors for opportunity were open. I have been able to work with my peers to learn about the process of developing research from start to finish. I have been given opportunities to add to presentations, complete peer reviews, and develop projects,” shared Aliya Abdulla, a P4 from Tucker. “They pushed me to work hard and showed me firsthand just how large of a role pharmacists can play in healthcare. I hope to be a mentor like they each are in the future.”

Together, these individuals have been able to create unique and significant opportunities for students and residents. One of the biggest successes of the collaboration has been what the student mentees have gone on to accomplish – from winning competitive national awards to joining top residency programs. 

Kendall Huntt, a P4 from Warner Robins, explained: “I have learned so much about the process of research and have been able to build a research project from the ground up. The skills I have gained from this group are incredibly valuable and not every pharmacy student gets this opportunity. Through UGAC3, I have been set up to successfully hit the ground running with any future research projects, for example, residency research projects.”

Dr. Smith remarked, “Everything goes back to the students. These students are very much impacted by the mentorship of the group and the opportunity to collaborate with the faculty as well as the other students.”

To keep up with this collaboration and group initiatives, follow @UGAC3 on Twitter.